Rebecca-Anne Withey: For Deaf actors to shine, we need to get behind #deaftalent

Posted on February 15, 2016

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Whether you’re aware of the #deaftalent hashtag trend that’s circulating social media, there’s a storm brewing in the deaf world. Or amongst the thespians at least.

I say this because I’ve sensed for some time now a rising discontent when it comes to getting roles. Or – more to the point – at those bagging most of the roles.

You see, a few hearing performers I know of recently worked in sign language roles, and subsequently faced the wrath of the deaf community.

Regardless of whether they have deaf family or fluent signs, the general view from the deaf community has always been that roles with sign language should be given to deaf actors. Simple.

Well… Not really. The thing is casting directors – more often than not – will ask to see actors ‘with sign language.’ This loophole means that they don’t have to be deaf, they merely need to act and sign well on screen.

The director will have a vision for the production and will want to match it. Whether or not the actor is profoundly deaf, hearing impaired or a CODA (child of deaf adults) is not always of interest or use to them.

This means that as an actress who is deaf I can’t fall behind my deafness and expect it to do the work for me. It’s my acting skills and role suitability that will get me jobs, not my lack of hearing.

But I understand we need more representation on screen from artists who are truly deaf! We want inspiration, role models! We need real life demonstrations that anything is possible.

And we do have that in a way in the form of Nyle DiMarco, the winner of America’s Next Top Model who is also deaf and a sign language user. He won, not because he’s deaf, but because he’s a blooming good model. Which is why the mainstream regard him as a ‘model who is deaf’ rather than a ‘deaf model.’ His work is not limited by his deafness.

But aha- that’s where the modelling world differs from acting. On stage and on screen it’s all about communication – so our deafness can’t help but be on show.

For most of us, the moment we speak or sign we are outed as ‘deaf.’ And so we can’t help but be pigeon holed as ‘deaf actors’ and sent only for roles featuring sign language, or for characters with a hearing loss. We can’t play just anybody. 

So this is where the discontent towards non-deaf actors in sign language really lies. Seeing as they have all the mainstream roles to choose from, aren’t they being a bit…Greedy? Can’t they leave the deaf roles for us?! 

But, *sighs*. Acting. TV. Commercials. It’s a dog eat dog world. Hearing people who know sign language have every right to put ‘BSL’ on their CV’s list of languages and they have every right to attend auditions with sign language too.

But what I want to know is why don’t we – the deaf actors – always know about these auditions?

Hearing actresses I recently worked with spoke about auditioning for a role in a music video that featured sign language. Nobody in my agency had even heard about the opportunity.

And then the said music video pops up online featuring an unknown actress with stilted signs who is is hearing…

I’m not anti-hearing (my family’s full of them ;)) but you can’t help but wonder where the deaf artists are.

A band I had hoped to work with recently also decided to use interpreters for their shows instead of deaf artists, blaming the decision on their budget…

And casting directors have postponed work purposely because they couldn’t find enough deaf actors. When I personally know there to be loaaaads of us.

Sure, my deaf acting buddies may not all fit the directors criteria but if people aren’t actually finding out about roles, can somebody tell me what’s going on?

Are we not sharing enough? Encouraging each other? Are we harbouring audition information as deaf roles are hard enough to come by anyway…? I don’t know.

We have the deaf actors. And we have the talent. But the opportunities seem to be getting lost.

Are we getting lost in the mainstream? Do we need to raise our signs and get ourselves heard? Noticed?

I think we need a plan. A plan, not to prevent hearing actors from going for opportunities, but one to ensure that those who are deaf are being given an equal chance too.

So come on, #deaftalent or #talentthatisdeaf who’s with me?

Rebecca-Anne Withey is an actress, sign singer and tutor of performing arts. A black country girl at heart, she now resides in Derby where she works in both performance art and holistic therapies. She writes on varied topics close to her heart in the hope that they may serve to inspire others.

The Limping Chicken is the UK’s deaf blogs and news website, and is the world’s most popular deaf blog. It is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.

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